As Cillian O’Connor stated afterwards, this is not where the footballers of Mayo want to be. They’d much prefer to be preparing for Sunday’s Connacht final. Instead, they’ll be tuning into the wireless shortly after 8.30am to hear who and where they go next.
Familiarity with the backroads doesn’t make them any more enjoyable. And yet, Stephen Rochford’s charges and their fanatical army of followers continue to light up the qualifiers.
An hour-and-a-half before throw-in on Saturday, there were tailbacks out the Ennis Road. For those who had beaten the traffic in, car boots hung open and GAA picnics were in full swing.
Inside the ground, the visitors quickly took over the Mackey Stand. And when Tom Parsons — leaning on a crutch, his left leg in a brace — was spotted hobbling into the Mayo subs area, they rose to their feet and rapturously applauded the injured midfielder.
At the finish, grown men flocked towards Lee Keegan to welcome back the 2016 footballer of the year after his near three-month injury lay-off. A crowd of 8,171 attended the Connacht semi-final which Mayo had intended to be a part of last week. This first-round qualifier was watched by 8,230, the home support very much in the minority.
“That says it all,” said Stephen Rochford. “They’ll travel, no matter what.”
This 18-point dismissal of Limerick was Mayo’s seventh consecutive qualifier victory during Rochford’s tenure and their most substantial of the past three summers.
There were five changes to the team which lost to Galway, corner-forward Evan Regan making his first appearance since suffering a facial bone fracture during their league defeat to Kerry on February 3. Joining him in attack were James Durcan and Cian Hanley, both of whom were making first championship starts.
All three were cast in supporting roles such was the brilliance of Cillian O’Connor.
This was the 26-year-old’s third championship hat-trick, 3-3 of his 3-9 total coming from play. His sumptuous flick to Regan before receiving the return pass for Mayo’s opening goal summed up his class on an evening when he assumed the title of Mayo’s all-time leading scorer.
“It’s a tremendous personal achievement in what was his first start in three months,” said Rochford.
“I’m delighted for him, but as he knows, our focus and his as captain is about the team. He got 3-9 today, but if he gets two points the next day and we win, that will continue to be what will please him most.”
The man himself was thankful to have put a full stop after this particular conversation. A scoring record is the least of his priorities.
“A few people had said it to me last month. Without being disrespectful, it is nice to have that out of the way. There’ll be nobody on about it now. Down the line, it will be nice to look back on. Right now, it is all about making sure this journey keeps going,” said O’Connor.
“We are not where we want to be, but we just have to enjoy the challenge of the next game and see can we keep rolling.”
O’Connor declared himself pleased with the players around him who had been given their chance by management.
“Any time you lose, there has to be a consequence for the people who didn’t get the win. You then have to look to the people who have been pushing. After the Galway game, that is what we did. The boys knocked on the door hard, they got their chance today. Once you have a jersey, it is yours to hold onto.”
2017 footballer of the year Andy Moran was held until the final quarter but made an immediate impact as Mayo rattled off three goals in quick succession between the 62nd and 64th minutes.
The 34-year old was involved in O’Connor’s second and third goals before roles were reversed and Moran palmed to the net for Mayo’s fourth. He also supplied their fifth after Lee Keegan, introduced as a second-half sub, saw his drive parried.
The home side, bidding to secure a first championship win in two years, drew first blood when Seán McSweeney converted a fourth-minute penalty. Between there and the break, though, they were outscored 1-10 to 0-1.
Limerick manager Billy Lee confirmed afterwards that he wishes to remain on for 2019.
“You can’t build a team when you have a large turnover in players from year to year. It is like trying to build a house while knocking down blocks, you’ll never build it. We have to keep the squad together. It is incumbent on all of us to keep promoting Limerick football and to keep doing the work on the ground.
“We can’t look to people who may not have as much interest in it as we have to do the work for us. I think we are on a journey.”
C O’Connor (3-9, 0-5 frees, 0-1’ 45); A Moran (2-0); P Durcan, A O’Shea (0-2 each); C Boyle, C Barrett, S Coen, C Hanley, E Regan, J Durcan (0-1 each).
S O’Carroll (2-1, 1-0 pen, 0-1 free); S McSweeney (1-0 pen); J Ryan (0-2 frees), I Corbett (0-2 each); D Neville, J Lee (0-1 each).
D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; E O’Donoghue, P Durcan, C Boyle; S O’Shea, S Coen; K McLoughlin, A O’Shea, C Hanley; E Regan, C O’Connor, J Durcan.
L Keegan for Boyle (46 mins); J Doherty for McLoughlin (48); C Loftus for S O’Shea (53); A Moran for Higgins (54); C Crowe for Hanley (60); S Nally for O’Donoghue (64).
D O’Sullivan; G Noonan, S O’Dea, P Maher; P White, I Corbett, C Fahy; D Treacy, M Fitzgibbon; S McSweeney, D Neville, J Liston; P Nash, J Ryan, J Lee.
S O’Carroll for McSweeney (HT); T McCarthy for Liston (48); P Scanlon for Lee (53); G Browne for Fitzgibbon (57); D Lyons for Neville (61); D Connolly for Nash (66).
N Cullen (Fermanagh).
Trailing by 0-7 to 1-1 after 23 minutes, Limerick’s Michael Fitzgibbon and Josh Ryan missed back-to-back scoring opportunities. Instead, Mayo went down and hit 1-3 without reply.
Lee Keegan coming off the bench for the closing 25 minutes, his first action since injuring his shoulder against Tyrone on March 18.
Cillian O’Connor. Began the day one point behind Conor Mortimer (14-388) on Mayo’s all-time scoring chart. Finished the day as Mayo’s all-time leading scorer.
Limerick football. Just the one championship win in four years - that a round 1 qualifier against Antrim in 2016. In 2018, there was just one competitive victory.
Limerick won plenty of possession in the middle third but with so few bodies operating close to the Mayo goal, they were unable to make any substantial headway in terms of putting points on the board.
Ger Cafferkey limped off towards the finish, though it didn’t look anything particularly serious.
Donal Vaughan (groin) returned to light training last week.
Management are hopeful he will be an option next time out. Neil Douglas (hamstring) and Barry Moran (Achilles) also missed this game but should be back for their second round qualifier. Brendan Harrison (knee) remains a month or so away from making his return.
With 3-9 to his name, it’s next to impossible to look beyond Cillian O’Connor. This game was a contest for all of 29 minutes and during that time, the Mayo captain contributed 1-5 of their 1-7 haul.
First Limerick penalty was marginal. Mayo’s Stephen Coen should have seen black for pulling back Paul Maher close to the Mayo goal in the second-half. Referee Niall Cullen chose not to reach for his book.
Mayo will learn their fate this morning when the draw for the second round of qualifiers is made.